When Lego Star Wars came out a few years ago, the charming and surprisingly fun gameplay quickly made its way into gamers’ hearts, and spawned an unlikely franchise in which developer Traveller’s Tales combined popular licenses with Lego bricks. Since then, however, the series has slowly declined in quality and entertainment, with the last two installments, Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones 2, launching with glitches and questionable design choices. While that may have turned most gamers away from the series, using the Harry Potter films as the basis for the next Lego game was too hard to resist for me, and I gave Traveller’s Tales one more chance. After experiencing Harry’s first four years at Hogwarts, I think that the Lego franchise may be back on track, though it still has a way to go before achieving greatness.
At its core, the gameplay of Lego Harry Potter is similar to all of the other games in the franchise. Players will take the role of Harry or some of his Hogwarts friends and make their way through the linear plots of the first four Harry Potter books and movies, blasting apart objects, solving puzzles, and encountering familiar faces in Lego form. What makes Harry Potter stand out is the fact that the characters use spells to interact with the environment, and because some spells aren’t unlocked until later in the game, there are actually plenty of reasons to go back and replay early areas once they’re beaten. Lego Harry Potter is chock full of collectibles, and collecting studs will allow the player to buy new spells or outfits in Diagon Alley, which serves as the game’s hub between levels.
I was concerned about how the game would incorporate spell casting, but it turned out to be surprisingly intuitive. Characters can access their available spells by holding the Y button, which opens up a spell wheel. They can also be quickly selected by using the shoulder buttons, allowing Harry and friends to switch between familiar spells like Expecto Patronum, Riddikulus, and Incendio. The campaign is a mix of classes, which usually require the player to complete a challenge in order to earn a new spell, and story-based events that will be familiar to anyone who has read the books or seen the movies. While some plot points were reworked to include the cooperative aspect or make them less dark and more family-friendly, for the most part, Lego Harry Potter did a really good job of bringing the first four chapters to life in a lighthearted, humorous, and Lego-filled way.
Hogwarts Castle is also impressively large and detailed in Lego Harry Potter, and the players will have time to explore it between classes, Triwizard Tournaments, and Quidditch matches. Aside from blasting everything in sight for more studs, there are students in peril that can be rescued, and plenty of secrets hidden throughout the castle. Potion-making is another large part of the game, and using the gold cauldrons scattered throughout the school to make Polyjuice Potion will allow the player to switch the current character with another that has been unlocked. This is advantageous in some sections that require particular spells or attributes that not all characters have; for example, older characters or professors will have access to more spells early on, while only Slytherins can get into the Slytherin common room. This also increases the exploration and replay value of Lego Harry Potter, as more characters can be obtained throughout the game that will come in handy when replaying earlier levels.
For all of the things Lego Harry Potter does right, the game isn’t with out its problems, something it shares with the rest of the series. Lego Harry Potter uses the same split screen as Lego Indiana Jones 2 did, with the screen splitting into two sections when the cooperative characters wander apart. While Toe Jam & Earl managed to incorporate this seamlessly almost twenty years ago, it’s still not quite right in this game. When the screen is split, each player’s view of the area is severely limited, and still puts some areas out of reach. This only happens during two-player cooperative play; during single-player mode, the accompanying members of your party will usually just follow you blindly.
Other issues from past games have been worked around, but not necessarily fixed. For some reason, Lego Harry Potter still doesn’t have online co-op, which makes no sense at this point. It could be argued that because the game is intended for a younger audience, it’s not meant to be played online, but it seems silly to limit the all-ages appeal by neglecting to incorporate an important feature. Instead of improving computer AI during single-player mode, there are simply less puzzles that require two characters to work together. There is a level editor once again, and just like in Lego Indy 2, it’s far too shallow and really doesn’t add anything to the game. Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones 2 had glitches that didn’t allow for a second player to get achievements, and instead of fixing this, Traveller’s Tales just made the majority of achievements single-player only. Yes, achievements don’t make any difference in the actual gameplay, but working around this issue instead of actually fixing it just seems lazy to me. I only encountered one major glitch throughout the entire game, when a cut scene failed to load before a wizarding duel, which kept the game from moving forward and forced me to restart. While Lego Harry Potter is significantly less buggy than the last two Lego games, glitches like that still shouldn’t be acceptable.
Fans of the Harry Potter series should enjoy the story cut scenes, which were a highlight of the game. There are plenty of references that only die-hards will catch, and as a Harry Potter nerd, I could really appreciate the care and respect for the source material that the game had. Yes, some of the more serious or upsetting moments had to be watered down to fit the tone of the game, but given the context, I didn’t have a problem with it. The wonderful score of the films is present throughout the game, enhancing the experience even further. The presentation isn’t perfect, and Harry will sometimes walk through solid objects, but for the most part, the Lego representation of the Harry Potter universe is very enjoyable.
Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is a giant step forward for the series, and the most fun it’s been in years. There are still issues that need to be worked out, and I wish Traveller’s Tales had fixed more of its problems instead of dancing around them. Each year takes several hours to complete, making the game a decent length, though a few segments do run long and get a bit tedious. Lego Harry Potter has a lot of charm, and is actually pretty fun, but the flaws are too hard to overlook. I’d love to see Traveller’s Tales follow this up with another Lego Harry Potter title featuring the last three years of the story, but until more of the series’ problems are addressed, I can’t recommend the $50 price tag for anyone but the most devoted Harry Potter fans.